Chris Whelpdale’s early first half effort proved enough for the Gills to seal all three points against Southend in the first game of the New Year.
The midfielder converted home after just three minutes after a fine free kick from Joe Martin, and despite several chances for the hosts, they were unable to beat a stubborn rear-guard who put everything on the line to keep a clean sheet.
The Gills made five changes to the team that lost against Barnet on Boxing Day, the most notable being the inclusion of centre-back Leon Legge who signed a one-month loan deal from Brentford in time to be available.
Andy Frampton, Jack Payne, Chris Whelpdale and Adam Birchall were the other four changes. Birchall was making his first league start for the club having impressed in training in recent weeks.
As for Southend they made just the one change, Britt Assombalonga replacing Barry Corr after passing a late fitness test.
The Gills stormed out of the blocks and within three minutes they were ahead. A Martin free kick was weighted towards the back post and Chris Whelpdale shrugged off his marker to convert beyond a helpless Paul Smith.
The finish was very impressive with the angle decreasingly against him, but the weight of the touch was perfect and the visiting fans had something to shout about almost immediately.
Moments later an identical free kick nearly created the second. New signing Legge headed back towards the 18-yard line and Adam Barrett tried his luck with a left foot shot on the turn but his effort went high and wide.
On seven minutes Southend had their first shot on goal. Kevan Hurst’s corner was only half cleared and Tamika Mkandawire launched a right foot effort which was well blocked by one of the Gills defence.
Whelpdale had to block just moments later when Gavin Tomlin’s surging run nearly resulted in a goal, his effort looked goal bound but the goal scorer got back and put his body on the line to prevent the equaliser.
Soon after Myles Weston had a great chance to make it 2-0 when a great clearing header by Legge caused confusion at the back. Smith rejected the chance to come out of his box and clear which gave the winger chance to lob the keeper from 20 yards.
Although on target his effort failed to clear Smith and he was able to tip it wide.
On 29 minutes Legge very nearly opened his account for the club with his first opportunity. Barrett once more found time inside the box for a shot – Smith parried the effort straight into the path of Legge but he was unable to divert it goalwards.
Weston and Martin both went close before Michael Timlin fired over the bar from a Hurst corner to signal the last piece of action before the interval.
Bradley Corr came on at half-time for the hosts in place of Marc Laird and nearly made an immediate impact. Hurst’s corner was met by the striker’s firm header but it failed to trouble Nelson as he watched it go wide of his left hand post.
On 56 minutes Assombalonga had a great opportunity to equalise. He found half a yard of space inside the penalty area and tried to place his shot beyond Nelson, however Martin slid in and got an important block on the ball.
Seconds later Nelson produced a stunning save to deny Hurst. From at least 20 yards the midfielder very nearly pulled one out the top drawer but the Gills keeper was at full stretch to palm it wide.
Southend kept on coming and before the hour mark should have been level. Former Gills loanee Tomlin delivered a pinpoint low cross to the back post and somehow Corr put it over from no more than two yards.
He was put under pressure by the recovering Martin but amazingly failed to tap home before Burton had to head off the line with Tomlin again being the provider from the right hand side.
The visitors weathered the storm and then made a double substitution with Charlie Lee and Danny Jackman replacing Chris Whelpdale and Adam Birchall, meaning Weston joined Deon Burton in attack.
However Burton dropped deeper as the half progressed with Southend exerting huge pressure on the Gills defence – big tackles needing to be made to deny clear cut opportunities.
On 77 minutes Weston very nearly doubled the advantage against the run of play. A long clearance left him having to beat two defenders to increase the lead, he stormed in to the box and struck across the goalkeeper.
The chance came off the inside of the post and was collected by the grateful Smith who breathed a sigh of relief as Southend continued to push men forward in search of a match changing goal.
On 83 minutes Ryan Cresswell came within inches of getting it. A free kick from Hurst was cleared but immediately knocked straight back in to the area, the defender met it well but it just went wide.
Martin Allen used his final sub with Danny Kedwell replacing Burton, and he too was on hand to defend as the Gills looked to see out the remaining minutes.
Kedwell attempted a delicate header in the last minute from a Jackman corner which went over the bar before Martin did brilliantly to block an effort from Corr which looked to be nestling in the bottom corner.
This proved to be the last chance of the game as the referee called time on a great match which the Gills will be delighted to have won considering Southend are fellow promotion rivals.
Southend: Smith, Clohessy, Cresswell, Timlin, Hurst, Prosser, Assombalonga (Eastwood 75), Tomlin, Barker, Laird (Corr 45), Mkandawire (Donnelly 80).
Unused Subs: Straker, Martin, Phillips, Bentley.
Gills: Nelson, Fish, Legge, Barrett, Martin, Whelpdale (Lee 64), Payne, Frampton, Weston, Birchall (Jackman 64) Burton (Kedwell 86).
Unused Subs: Forecast, Davies, Dack, Allen.
Referee: Mr A. Woolmer
Attendance: 7498 (1184 Gills)
Bookings: Martin (71)
Goals: Whelpdale (3)